I am so excited that JoAnne Brackeen is coming to Hartford, CT for the Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz festival, which I believe marks the first time in 15 years she has played in the Nutmeg State as a bandleader. Fresh off the news that she has been selected as a 2018 NEA Jazz Master, she is still a powerhouse at 78. She is also one of my biggest influences in music and someone who deserves far more attention (not that she herself is apt to complain).
In the fall semesters of 1993 and 1994, fairly early in my six years of studies with Kenny Barron, he brought JoAnne to Rutgers to teach a handful of lessons while he was on the road. Seven in total, not that I’m keeping track. Okay, maybe I am, because they were profoundly life-changing encounters. I wasn’t a particularly precocious or mature student at that time, but I was somehow smart enough to know that this was an opportunity to dig in and learn something about her conception. Most of that work together was spent with me learning her compositions, which are at the same time extremely challenging and extremely natural and intuitive. That is, on paper, the changes in time signature and rhythm and tonality are quite difficult, but as soon as I heard her play these tunes they made perfect sense and it was clear that the complexities weren’t hyper-intellectualized components added to trip up musicians. Quite the contrary, it was as if I was seeing the next logical step after Ornette Coleman, a composer working within the jazz realm of chord changes and song forms and notated composition, yet working with unfettered creativity that was still far from random. The tunes breathed and ebbed and flowed and moved when it made organic sense. My ideas about how to create were changed and there was no turning back. Some of my own recorded compositions are naked tributes to her writing style (such as “T-Time” from the Playdate album and “Gorpy” from Turtle Steps), but even the tunes that don’t obviously sound like her often bear that stamp more subtly.
Oh yeah, and then there was the piano playing. Holy cow what a powerful and visionary pianist she was and is. In addition to her wonderful material, it was really illuminating to hear her play standards and to hear what she had to say on my own burgeoning compositions. Along the way I became a drooling fan, collecting most of her records (I’m a couple short of having the “full catalogue,” but pretty close). Her recent recorded work is scant (making her upcoming appearance here all the more exciting) and while there are some of her 1970s albums that are available digitally, I’m frustrated by how much of her great output from the 1980s and ‘90s is difficult to find (unless you come to my crib for a listening party). I’ve made my attempts to introduce younger musicians to her music (including arranging/assigning her tunes for the Wesleyan University Jazz Ensemble, from “Can This McBee” early in my work there to “Egyptian Dune Dance” this past semester). The tracks here are a small handful of my favorites, presented in chronological order.
1 ) “What the World Needs Now is Peace and Love” from Jazz Messengers ‘70 (by Art Blakey), 1970
From a statistical/historical standpoint, this record stands out in that JoAnne was the first female Jazz Messenger. From a musical standpoint, she plays her butt off and this is the first chance to really hear her dig in, after multiple funky albums by vibraphonist Freddie McCoy in which she is dutifully playing in the rhythm section without being out front. This incarnation of Blakey’s band also features Carlos Garnett (who contributed this tune), Bill Hardman, and Jan Arnet.
2 ) “Nefertiti” from Snooze (a.k.a. Six Ate), 1975
This trio outing with Stan Getz bandmate Billy Hart on drums and frequent Brackeen collaborator Cecil McBee on bass is her first record as a bandleader. There are several wonderful original compositions here, but I selected this Wayne Shorter tune a) to provide a bit of context for her playing on a tune you may have heard before, b) to display her particularly authoritative playing on work by modern innovators of her generation (she’s also done great versions of tunes by Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner, for example), and c) because I LOVE the way she plays this tune and her version was the direct inspiration for my own recording of it from my What It Is album.
3 ) “Infant Eyes” from Moments In Time (by Stan Getz), 1976
There is a goldmine of mid-70s live material featuring JoAnne and Billy Hart playing with Stan Getz. This track, recorded at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco (appropriately enough run by fellow 2018 NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan), is another Wayne Shorter tune, and it features JoAnne’s gorgeous ballad playing both as a soloist and accompanist.
4 ) “Beagle’s Boogie” from Ancient Dynasty, 1980
JoAnne has a particular way with writing funky groove tunes in odd and/or shifting time signatures that still feel danceable as long as you don’t demand symmetry in your dancing, and this is one of my favorites. She also has a particular way with writing stuff that sounds great for tenor saxophone, with Michael Brecker, Branford Marsalis, and Chris Potter among those who’ve recorded on her albums. This record (and track) feature the great Joe Henderson, laying in nicely on this asymmetrical groove laid down by JoAnne and her frequent collaborators Eddie Gomez on bass and Jack DeJohnette on drums.
5 ) “Enchance” from Special Identity, 1981
Here are Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette yet again, on the second of three great trio albums recorded over a dozen years’ time with JoAnne. Several of my favorite JoAnne originals are on this album, but I’m selecting this utterly gorgeous waltz that lends itself well to both lyricism and fire, of which she not surprisingly delivers both on this recording.
6 ) “Heidi-B” from Sweet Return (by Freddie Hubbard), 1983
My first time hearing JoAnne play or write was on this album, which I found at the Rutgers library upon learning I would be working with her. She sounds great on the whole album, but the tune that she wrote is predictably the one that really blew my mind and introduced me to some of her compositional and pianistic language. Lew Tabackin on tenor and flute, old pal Eddie Gomez on bass, and Roy Haynes on drums round out the quintet. As you seek out/fall in love with this tune, note that sometimes I’ve seen this spelled “Hedi-B,” and on other versions with JoAnne as bandleader it’s “Haiti-B.”
7 ) “Dr. Chu Chow” from Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, 1989
I adore JoAnne’s solo piano playing, from her first solo record Mythical Magic in 1978 to 1999’s Popsicle Illusion, her most recent album as leader. This song (one of those I learned while studying with her) is a portrait of a Qigong master about whom she told me early in our work together as I was experiencing severe wrist problems. I will never forget how nurturing and flat-out informative she was in sharing wisdom about wellness at a time when I was getting desperate. And this tune is wonderful too.
8 ) “Picasso” from Turnaround, 1992
Probably the most difficult of the JoAnne tunes I learned in our work together, this song epitomizes the “tricky yet totally sensible” ethos I’ve described. To hear Donald Harrison, Cecil McBee, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, and JoAnne utterly destroy this tune (in a live performance at the sadly now-defunct NYC club Sweet Basil). All the quirks in the tune totally belong and give it an edge worthy of Pablo himself.
9 ) “Manhattan Style” from Brasil from the Inside (by Trio da Paz), 1992
Here JoAnne joins the powerful Brazilian trio, augmented as well on this track by Claudio Roditi. Her affection for Brazilian music can be heard on recordings as far back as the work with Stan Getz (including a live album with Joao Gilberto) and she manages to assimilate the rhythmic nuances while still retaining her own sound.
10 ) “Another Look” from A New Beginning (by Makanda Ken McIntyre), 1999
This slow swing tune, featuring Makanda on flute, is from one of her most recent sessions, save for a nice T.K. Blue record from the following year. She locks in with drummer Charli Persip and plays with impeccable taste and groove, still getting a bit gnarly as things develop.